Uzbek, “the penguin of Turkic languages”

Feb 25, 2011 by

A quick clarification about an earlier posting on Turkic languages. There I said that of the four major Turkic languages in Central Asia — Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Turkmen — Turkmen is the real “odd man out”.

This statement is based on genetic classification of these languages and on that genetic classification alone. Of the four languages, two (Kazakh and Kyrgyz) belong to the Kipchak branch and Uzbek belongs to the Uyghur branch of Turkic, although another variety of Uzbek — the Kipchak Uzbek language — is another Kipchak Turkic language. Turkmen indeed stands out as far as its genetic classification goes: it alone belongs to the Oghuz branch of Turkic. (It should also be noted that in fact another variety of Uzbek, the so-called Oghuz Uzbek, belongs to the Oghuz branch too).

However, if we are to consider the typological classification of these four languages, an entirely different picture emerges with Uzbek being the “odd man out”, the least Turkic-like of the four languages. For example, (Standard) Uzbek stands out in its vocabulary, where it exhibits strong influences of Iranian languages, such as Tajik and Persian (also, many originally Arabic words have been borrowed into Uzbek through Persian).

Another decidedly un-Turkic feature of Uzbek is the lack of vowel harmony, which is characteristic of most other Turkic languages (including the dialects of other ethnic groups subsumed under the term “Uzbek”, such as Kipchak Uzbek and Oghuz Uzbek; see below). Recall that the presence of vowel harmony in a language restricts the possible qualities of vowels in a word: if rules of vowel harmony are applicable in a given language, all vowels in every word must be either front or back. For example, a vowel harmony language would not allow an [o] and an [i] in the same word. To implement this, Turkic languages have vowel inventories with a clear front/back distinction: for instance, the /o/ and the /ö/ are contrasted, as are the /u/ and the /ü/, and so on.

In Standard Uzbek the vowel harmony does not apply, and the front/back distinctions are not maintained. For example, the /o/ and /ö/ of other Turkic languages are both pronounced as [o], as in the word ko’z ‘eye’ (cf. with the Uyghur and Kyrgyz köz and the Turkmen göz). Similarly, the Uzbek word for ‘bridge’ is
ko’prik, a cognate of the Uyghur kövrük, the Kyrgyz köpürö and the Turkmen köpri. Notice that Uzbek is in the only language in this set that allows a coexistence of the back vowel [o] with the front vowel [i] in the same word.

Another distinction present in other Turkic languages but eliminated in Uzbek is between the back and front high rounded vowels /u/ and /ü/, both of which correspond to the [u] in Uzbek. Examples of Uzbek cognates with /u/, where other Turkic languages have /ü/, include the words yurak ‘heart’ and kun ‘sun/day’ (cf. yürek and kün in the closely related Uyghur language).

This lack of vowel harmony results in that suffixes in Standard Uzbek typically have just one form, rather than two or even four, as in Turkic languages with vowel harmony.

Some of the un-Turkic features of Uzbek, especially the Iranian elements in its vocabulary, can be easily explained through language contact and lexical borrowing. But the grammatical peculiarities such as the lack of vowel harmony are perhaps best explained through language contact as well. But how could contact with other Turkic languages that have vowel harmony lead to its elimination from Uzbek?

The answer is that (Standard) Uzbek has been in extensive contact with other Turkic varieties from different branches and it has been subject to massive second language (L2) learning. As we are now discovering, massive L2 learning in non-institutionalized settings (that is, when speakers have to pick the other language “on the fly”, without going to language classes etc.) leads to (sometimes severe) simplification of the language being thus learned. Quirky distinctions are disregarded, exotic elements eliminated. Thus, vowel harmony fell prey to this inaccurate L2 learning by speakers of other (related) languages, such as Kipchak Uzbek (a Western Turkic language similar to Kazakh and Kyrgyz) and Oghuz Uzbek (a Southern Turkic language, most closely related to Turkish and Turkmen, spoken mostly in Khwarezm, along the lower Amu Darya river); cf. the map above.

If you are not convinced that vowel harmony could have disappeared from Uzbek because of L2 learning by speakers who had (and still have) vowel harmony in their native languages, think about what happened to Verb-Second syntax in English. Recall from an earlier posting that the Verb-Second pattern is very typical of Germanic languages, including Icelandic, which developed from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. Yet, many scholars now believe that the Verb-Second pattern has been severely reduced and nearly eliminated in English as a result of a massive L2 learning by… the very same Vikings who spoke Old Norse. Thus, even though Old Norse had Verb-Second, the mere fact that its speakers had to informally learn Old English resulted in the loss of Verb-Second in the late Old English period.


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  • John Cowan

    Actually, the explanation can't be that straightforward. Old Norse and Old English were both IP-V2 (as Icelandic is today), but Northern Middle English, spoken in the contact region, was CP-V2! Here's a paper by Tony Kroch and Ann Taylor explaining it, and showing that IP-V2 languages are not quite what they are usually thought to be.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thank you for your comment and the reference. Even though there were differences between these languages, the V2 nature was probably more obvious (certainly, main clauses are more frequent than embedded clauses, as you can't have the latter without the former but not vice versa). Moreover, your counterexample may not be a problem, as I am not claiming that all Turkic languages had the same pattern of vowel harmony. What is at stake here is that native Turkic languages of L2 Uzbek learners had vowel harmony but it was still perceived as too "complicated", "quirky" or whatever to be part of this "creolized" (and I am using the term loosely) language.

  • Musa S.

    Elimination of /ï/ (thus using only /i/ instead of it) in Modern Uighur language also appears an exceptional situation for vowel harmony which is characteristic of Turkic languages. Is this really a result of second language learning or an original side of Qarluk branch (Uighur and Uzbek)? Some similar exceptions are seen in North-eastern Anatolian dialects (Turkic)as well. The area was inhabited by Pontic Greeks before Turks.

    • Charles Charles

      “Pontic Greeks before Turks”. More like Georgian/Caucasian peoples. Greeks were unwelcome occupiers.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Musa S: Thank you for your comment — these are very interesting issues and ideas.

  • Musa S.

    Your welcome! I thank you too. I should say that your blog is very valuable for those who are interested in linguistics. Texts are brief and interesting 😉 beyond being boring.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Musa S: Thank you! Always nice to hear praise for my work 😉

  • Anonymous

    A cursory examination of Uzbek dialectology will tell you that most Uzbek dialects do have vowel harmony — so the point of the whole post is moot.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Anonymous: Thank you for your comment! Perhaps it's not clear from the post, but I am talking about the so-called Standard Uzbek, which does not have vowel harmony. As you note correctly, most non-standard varieties of Uzbek do. But they also do not seem to be very closely related to Standard Uzbek and certainly are not members of the same subfamily. It's a rather peculiar situation, granted, but the confusion results more from the political gerrymandering that linguistic confusion per se. Thus, the post is not moot but your point about non-standard varieties of Uzbek having vowel harmony confirms my point that (Standard) Uzbek is "a penguin of Turkic languages".

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  • Leona james

    Hi I was searching for the blogs for many times, now I have reached at the right place.translate english to kazakh

  • Ertunç Delikaya

    A music video in Oghuz Uzbek with Turkish subtitles. I think it’s interesting to see how Oghuz Uzbek matches word to word with Turkish.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBru5dPALYk

  • Muzaffar Ismailov

    he term Uzbek derives from two words Oghuz Bey meaning the leader of Oghuz which is a term to describe people of turcik descent that populated Central Asia such as Seljuks, Kipchaks, Turcoman, and so on. (There were many tribes both nomadic and sedentary. Please be informed that modern official Uzbek is largely derived from Oghuz and Chagatay languages and was solidified during the rule of Tamerlane. Alisher Nawayiy is the founder of modern Uzbek and Babur is made it more prominent by using Uzbek in his book Baburnama. *(Bobur is the guy who conquered India and establishe Moghul Empire; he was originally from Andijan which is the city in Uzbekistan). Kipchak and Chagatay, although both are turkic languages, differ in many ways and modern Uzbek is a mix of Chagatay and Oghuz languages. There are only two remaining languages that can be considered as languages descended from Chagatay and these are Uzbek and Uyghur. It is true that Persian lnaguage had influence but not to the extent described by the author. In fact, Persian language speakers were not assimilated into mainstream Uzbek in Smarkand and Bukhara as people there still use Tajik or local Persian. Uzbek language has many dialects but the version that is spoken in Fergana Valley is considered to be the most genuine and closes to the language used in Timurid and later Shaybanid dynasty (They were Uzbek tribes that ruled after Tamerlane) As for your examples, the words given there are pronounced differently because of the dialects and not because of morphology.

  • Al Khwarezmy

    Maybe the author does not follow the comments anymore as it was written 4 years ago.
    I am from Khwarezm and native Uzbek. I think this is a very nice analysis and very close to reality. In Khwarezm we have two dialects one kipchak the other the dominant one oghuz. In oghuz khwarezm dialect we have vowel harmony to a great extent.
    I guess another important thing the author seems to have missed is in Standard uzbek vowels have different pronunciations. For example, the vowel i is pronunced differently in these words: bir and mening.

    • How so?

      • Al Khwarezmy

        What do you mean?

        • I am asking how the “i” is pronounced differently?

          • Al Khwarezmy

            In “mening” the letter i is pronunced like normal i but in “bir” it is pronunced close to turkish ı but more gently. You need to listen to it

          • Does it have to do with vowel harmony?

  • Андрей Яковлев

    About the loss of vowel harmony in Uzbek through intensive contacts with other Turkic tongues: In my opinion, the assumption is not convincing. Contact with Turkic language speakers should have strengthened this vowel harmony feature in the language, not eroded it.
    Rather, this loss can be, IMHO, better explained by the strong Iranian (Indo-Eeuropean) substratum influence upon the Tashkent dialect, which serves as the basis of today’s literary standard. Up to now, many Tajik (East Persian) speakers still live side by side with Uzbeks there, and Samarkand and Bukhara are predominantly Tajik-speaking.

  • Операция Ы

    Uzbek is the most beautiful of all Central Asian languages ands i am not a scientist. I also believe that the pronounciation of Russian language and the culture as well was influenced by North Asian languages, such as Kazakh, Tatar, Mongol, Korean.